“Those boots look like snakes,” Carly observed.
Julianne put her hands on Carly’s shoulders and marched her away from the door.
“Guy in the boots looks like one, too,” I muttered.
“What’s that, Deuce?” Billy asked, leaning forward.
“We’re in the middle of dinner,” I repeated. “What do you want?”
Billy hooked his thumbs in the belt loops of his pants. Which would’ve looked very Texan if he had been wearing jeans rather than a cheap, knockoff suit. And if the car out at the curb was a dusty pickup truck rather than a leased Lexus.
“Well, I didn’t wanna go runnin’ to the police without talking to you first,” he said, raising a bleached eyebrow. “But maybe I should.”
“Maybe you should.”
The eyebrow settled. “When did you find out?”
“Find out what?”
“That I was representing Benny.”
“I have no idea what you’re talking about, and my pizza’s getting cold.”
“That I was representing Benny in a lawsuit.” Billy Caldwell smiled, exposing his highly polished veneers. “Against you.”
The dead man in the backseat of my minivan wore a T-shirt that read
IT’S NOT A BEER BELLY. IT’S A FUEL TANK FOR A SEX MACHINE
A bright red arrow pointed down below those words to the purported energy source of his purported sex machine. If I’d seen him alive before he ended up in my Honda Odyssey, next to Carly’s car seat, I would’ve called him on it. Because the gut that protruded from the bottom of the shirt did, in fact, look like a belly made round and hard from years of imbibing.
But, at that moment, I was more concerned with the blood encircling the knife in his chest, why he was in my car in the parking lot of Cooper’s Market, and keeping my three-year-old daughter from seeing his corpse. I regularly found flyers and business cards on the car windows, but finding a body inside was a completely new and disconcerting experience.
“Daddy, who’s the man in my car?” Carly asked, leaning over in the shopping cart to get a better look through the window.
I wheeled the cart to the back of the minivan. “Uh, I’m not sure.”
“What’s he doing in there?”
“Sleeping, I think.”
She looked at me with her mother’s big brown eyes and narrowed them just like her mother did when she knew I was full of crap. “I don’t think so.”
I scanned the parking lot. The usual array of minivans, SUVs, and expensive German vehicles that traversed the streets of our little suburb north of Dallas. A sign as you enter town proclaims
THERE ARE NO THORNS IN ROSE PETAL
Would the dead guy be considered a thorn?
I looked at Carly while I fished for my cell phone in the pocket of my jeans. “Why don’t you think so?”
She cocked one eyebrow at me. Jeez. When had her mother taught her that one?
“Because I don’t hear him snoring, Daddy,” she said confidently. “Like you. You snore. That’s what Mama says.”
Her mama, my wife, Julianne, did claim that I snored. I, never having heard myself make any sort of noise while asleep, denied the claim vehemently.
“Well, maybe he’s just being quiet,” I said, punching in 9-1-1 on the cell.
Carly thought about that and tried to duck her head again to get a look in the back of the van. I swung the cart away from the van and moved into the middle of the lot. The kid was apparently developing a taste for morbidity.
“Deuce?” a voice called behind us. “Deuce Winters? What are you doing?”
The voice, as it always did, caused me to wince. I reluctantly turned around to see Darlene Andrews and her hair headed our way.
Darlene didn’t just have big hair. She had monstrosity hair. Hair that could be skied upon. Hair that could be ascended. Hair that looked like waves off the North Shore. The giant blond configuration gave her head the look of a bobblehead doll as she sashayed in our direction.
“What are you doing, honey?” she asked, slinking up next to us, settling her hand on my arm and winking.
Darlene’s greetings were always barbed with some sort of sexual innuendo. Maybe it was the way she swung her hips in the too-tight red pedal pushers. Or the way she thrust out her “not as large as she wanted them to be” breasts, seemingly ziplocked into a matching pink halter top. Or maybe it was the fact that ever since we’d gone to high school together, she’d been offering to take me to bed once a week.
I wasn’t sure.
She reeked of Avon products and cigarette smoke. Her make-up appeared to have been layered on with a paint roller. Bright red lips. Thick purple arcs over her eyes. Brilliant pink circles over her cheeks.
I was wondering how much paint thinner she used every night to clean herself up when the 9-1-1 operator answered.
“Ah, I need to report a dead body,” I said, trying to turn away from Darlene. Her two-inch-long nails dug into my flesh, though, and prevented me from getting too far.
“Excuse me, sir?” the operator asked.
“What’s a dead buddy?” Carly asked.
I lifted Carly out of the cart and held her out to Darlene, raising my eyebrows and showing her a “Please help” expression. Darlene reluctantly retracted her claws from me and took Carly.
“A dead body,” I repeated, attempting to step quickly out of earshot. “In my car. I’m in Rose Petal, in the parking lot of Cooper’s Market.”
Gum chewing in my ear. “In your car, sir?”
Darlene let out a shriek, and I turned just in time to see her raise a hand to her lips and step away from the van. Carly was leaning far out of her arms, still trying to get a closer look at who was occupying her backseat. Darlene’s shriek, in addition to stirring the resting souls at every cemetery within a fifteen-mile radius, brought people running from the front of Cooper’s.
“Can you just send the police, please?” I asked, shaking my head, wondering why I hadn’t waited to do the grocery shopping until, say, never.
“On their way, sir,” the operator responded.
I clicked off the phone and walked back to Darlene. I pried Carly out of her arms. Carly now shared Darlene’s “I showered in catalog-ordered products and then went bar hopping” scent.
“Deuce!” Darlene said. “I can’t believe this.”
A crowd of about thirty was now standing behind her, gawking and trying to snag a look into the van. My totally uncool, but state-of-the-art minivan. Leather seats, climate-controlled interior, push button everything. Julianne called it a Porsche for stay-at-home dads. Pretty darn close.
“I know, Darlene,” I said. “I know. I just called the police.”
Darlene turned to me, the wide purple arcs above her eyes arched like upside-down
s. “Why did you kill Benny?”
“Benny?” I asked, confused. “What are you talking about? Benny who? I didn’t kill anybody, Darlene.”
The crowd seemed to move their gaze collectively from the Honda to me.
She placed one hand on her hip and pointed her other hand at the car. “Benny Barnes.” She pointed again for emphasis.
I hadn’t heard Benny’s name in a while. Maybe I hadn’t wanted to hear it, but I couldn’t recall the last time I heard someone say it out loud.
I handed Carly back to Darlene and stepped in closer to the van again, peering in through the side window.
He’d put on about sixty pounds since high school, mostly in that supposed fuel tank. His face was puffy and red; his neck ringed with fat. The athletic physique I remembered was gone, replaced by a Pillsbury Doughboy–like look. I hadn’t looked much at his face when Carly and I arrived at the van. The knife in his chest and the blood around it as he sat slumped in one of the captain’s chairs were a little too distracting.
But Darlene was right. It was Benny.
And I was screwed.